Skinjob by Bruce McCabe, sex dolls and gender issues

Bruce McCabe SkinjobThe Good: gender issues
The Bad: gender issues
The Ugly: gender issues (and I foresaw the twist at the end)

Setting: US in the near future

Recommended for: thriller and suspense fans,
people interested in human factors in technology
innovation and adoption

When I heard Bruce McCabe speak at the National Book Bloggers Forum about his debut novel, Skinjob, I was hooked. Not by the title. If I’d seen that title on the library shelves, I wouldn’t have picked it up without gloves. When I first saw it, it reminded me of “hand-job”. It still reminds me of hand-job, even though I’ve read the book and there’s nothing titillating in it. Exciting, yes. Adventurous, yes. It has all the elements Robert McKee writes about in Story: a ticking clock, a vulnerable hero, powerful antagonists, and an interesting (pretty “high”) concept.

The concept: what could happen when robotics advance to the extent that the “world’s oldest profession” can be performed by robots, “Skinjobs”? What if the powerful forces of the pornography/sex trade industry and the neo-conservative Christian right waged an epic battle to sway the hearts and minds of the American people? What if a lie-detecting FBI agent and a San Francisco PD (female) surveillance officer teamed up in a race against time to prevent the annihilation of thousands of innocent people?

Juicy stuff, right? It is. And McCabe does it well. Well enough to have gone from being a self-published author hand-selling to Berkelouw Books in Dee Why to attracting the attention of J K Rowling’s agent and scoring a contract with Random House.

What really interests me about the book, though, is its take on gender issues.

Some background.

At the book bloggers’ forum, I asked Bruce McCabe whether he read books by Australian women. No, he is more of a Michael Crichton, Frederick Forsyth and Stephen King guy. (All of whose books I have devoured.) Also Lee Childs. He did say that author Kathryn Fox had been very helpful to him though (she appears in the acknowledgements) and added, “I must read her books”.

It was with amusement and some consternation, therefore, that I came across a cameo appearance of a “Kathryn Fox” in McCabe’s novel.

The title of the novel, Skinjob, refers to an advanced form of sex doll. These life-like dolls have warm “skin”, a “heartbeat”, and can move in a “come hither” fashion. They can’t speak, but can make moaning and groaning noises. They don’t act other than to flirt or serve. They can also simulate realistic fear to threats and acts of violence (up to the point of actual physical harm). “Kathryn Fox” appears in the book as one of the manufacturer Dreamcom’s most successful dolls.

What is McCabe trying to say here?

One thing McCabe talked about at the forum was how there is no good and bad in human beings; we all have elements of both. The main character, Daniel Masden, isn’t perfect. Nor is the female  SFPD operative, Shahida Sanayei (Shari), whom Masden partners up with. Shari, in fact (spoiler alert) solves the enigma that is central to the plot and, therefore, effectively saves the day.

All good. But what if Skinjob became a movie – as it certainly could; it’s very filmic, action-packed and fast-paced, has lots of interesting “locations”, high-tech gadgetry and car chases – would it pass the Bechdel Test? That is, does it have “at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man”?

It wouldn’t. That’s right. A story in which gender issues are crucial, all bar one of the main character roles are male. Shari is introduced in the context of having lost her male lover in a bomb-blast at a skinjob “brothel” – or pleasure house – run by Dreamcom. Her role in the story is to help Masden track down those responsible for the blast; all the suspects are male. The SFPD major figures and FBI personnel are male; the Dreamcom owners and employees are male; the leaders of the right-wing church suspected of being behind the blast are male. The majority of the “females” who would appear in the movie would be robots. (Imagine doing that screen test.)

Remember Skinjob is set in the future. Even if one asserted that the industries depicted in the story are currently male dominated, there is plenty of scope in a future world for more than one woman to be depicted as having agency and moral complexity. Why not a female pastor? A female pleasure parlour owner? Sure, the men in these roles in Skinjob don’t come off well and are often revealed to be self-serving hypocrites, sex-addicts and narcissists. That shouldn’t be a restriction. As McCabe was at pains to point out, human beings are complex moral creatures; that includes women.

In Skinjob McCabe sets out to address some really interesting questions about gender, sex and power, the most interesting of which, for me, is the ethics of using automatons for sexual relief. But, while writing about it for entertainment, he risks reinscribing the very kind of objectification and invisibility of women which, arguably, the sex industry and fundamentalist churches of all kinds have historically been guilty of.

My conclusion?  It’s still a page-turning read.

~

This review forms part of my contribution to the Aussie Author’s Challenge 2014

Review copy courtesy of the publishers at the National Book Bloggers Forum.
ISBN: 9780593074091
Published: 02/06/2014
Imprint: Bantam Press
Extent: 416 pages

 

ISBN: 9780593074091
Published: 02/06/2014
Imprint: Bantam Press
Extent: 416 pages

– See more at: http://www.randomhouse.com.au/books/bruce-mccabe/skinjob-9780593074091.aspx#sthash.KrlSSYff.dpuf

 

 

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14 Comments

  1. Wow, as you can imagine, with my research into love dolls, I am fascinated by the sound of this book. Thanks for putting me onto it.

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  2. Great review Elizabeth; I hope Mr McCabe reads it. It brings to mind Marge Piercy’s ‘Woman On The Edge of Time” and Paul McAuley’s ‘Fairyland’, both of which describe futures where women have been engineered/devolved to the status and function of dolls or as here, Skinjobs; even the word sounds pretty sleazy. I guess that it might be quite a few bloke’s idea of the perfect future; a place where men can get the good bits of womankind without having to bother with us otherwise. I’m interested that you still think it’s a good read, though after the misogynistic horrors of this past week I might leave it til another time!

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    • Thanks, Karen. I haven’t heard of those books. Apparently the author and Random House really agonised over the title. The other possible title, “Dollhouse” (the name given to the pleasure parlours), isn’t as catchy. As for being a good read, it’s entertaining and has the bonus of being thought-provoking (even if not, perhaps, in the way the author intended). If I couldn’t put aside problematic gender issues and still enjoy a good page-turner, my reading would be severely restricted. (PS: I’m someone who can still watch and enjoy James Bond movies. Yeah… No hope for me.)

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  3. it reminds me of Stepford Wives from decades ago. It seems that this certain male fantasy about automaton women is a long-standing one!

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  4. Great review of a book in need of discussion of its gender issues. Good for you for pointing out what some readers may not have noticed about it–including its author.
    If you have read Piercy’s Woman at the Edge of Time, do read it to balance the book you just reviewed. It’s fun and provocative, if maybe outdated today. I used to use it in Women’s Studies classes.

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    • NOT read—sorry

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    • Thanks for commenting, Marilyn. With a second recommendation to read Piercey’s Woman at the Edge of Time I must see if I can find it. Have you read Kirsten Krauth’s just_a_girl? It covers very interesting gender issues (and sex dolls), too, but in a completely different way. And Margo Lanagan’s Brides of Rollrock Island/Sea Hearts is perhaps even more pertinent (and very beautifully written).

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      • I haven’t read either of those, but I hope to find both of them.
        I don’t know if I’d like Piercey’s Woman as much as I did when it came out and what she was saying was new. Lots of fantasy playing with gender roles was published in the 1970s and 1980s, and I loved lots of the books.

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        • The 70s and 80s cound like they produced a lot of interesting fiction. (I was stuck in my poetry phase back then.) The one book I forgot to mention is the one I’d say you’d find very interesting and that’s Rupetta by Nike Sulway. I’m sure it is available internationally as an ebook because it won a prestigous prize, the James Tiptree Jr Award.

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  5. I’m surprised at how much I’m enjoying it as I wasn’t sure if the ‘tech’ side of things would put me off. I ended up reading 3/4 of it last night.

    I had to google what Skinjob meant before reading it!

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  1. Aussie Author Challenge Spotlight - August 2014

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